Table of contents
Table of contents
Poem / Counterpoint

Feeling What We Are/A’yel jtaleltik

An anthropologist and writer from the Tseltal community speaks back to a colonialist history of suppression—instead claiming his identity, language, and people.
A close-up image features a mostly red, woven piece of cloth with diagonal patterns that incorporate white, black, green, and hot pink accents.

Delmar Ulises Méndez-Gómez

“Feeling What We Are/A’yel jtaleltik” is part of the collection Indigenizing What It Means to Be Human. Read the introduction to the collection here.

1 I Am

I am not Indigenous, [1] Translated from the Spanish by Whitney DeVos.

I am Tseltal.

I am the language of my people.

Upon being named, I feel.

I am the language I speak.

Upon being named, I exist.

When I speak my language,

my lineages burst forth.

When I am named as Tseltal,

my history is acknowledged:

our collective history,

the history of struggle,

which was never annihilated.

 Indicate your response with an X.



Are you Indigenous?        Sí____ No____             Other: I am human. 

2 To Be or Not to Be Indigenous

Asking oneself who I am. Looking at oneself. Unweaving what’s inside. Acknowledging one’s skin, the root, the basis of our origins, the genealogy prescribing our present. We recognize ourselves in the wisdom of our people, in the land that shares its bounty with us. We name the life-world’s composition using frameworks from our linguistic universe. We understand our mother’s verses, the true words of our grandfather. They tell us we speak languages, not dialects. This is openly known among us. But our certainty is constantly overshadowed and transgressed. Colonization brought with it invasion, dispossession, miscegenation, Hispanicization, and extinction. People take one glance, and our features seem to say it all:

You’re Indigenous! You’re Indian! You’re a migrant! You’re poor!

Words that attempt to define what we supposedly are on behalf of those who legitimize colonialism through their speeches, practices, and fictions. Words that assign ways of being, of living, of violating our bodies and affects.

My ancestors—my grandfathers, grandmothers, mother, and father—did not differentiate themselves as “Indigenous.” First and foremost, they were people with a soul, heart, lab, body, and energy. [2] Lab is Tseltal for a soul animal connected with a person’s energy–life force–body–dream life. It lives in a place distinct from the physical body, but the two are nevertheless unavoidably attached to one another. There was no word to distinguish an Indigenous person from a non-Indigenous person.

Indigenous? The term does not even exist in Tseltal nor in any other Indigenous language spoken in the Americas. We are lumaletik—that is, we belong to the same land. [3] In Tseltal, the word lumal refers to an “I” that is a “we.” The term is used when one person recognizes another because they come from the same region or territory and share the same social condition. It’s similar to how migrants in the U.S. recognize one another as paisano, or from the same place: “a paisano always recognizes another paisano” because they share similar features, they hail from a similar place, and they arrive more or less due to the same financial reasons. In another sense, lumaletik (the plural for lumal) are land-persons, a term that does not in and of itself imply foreignness as a concept. The word kaxlan is used to denote someone “from the outside” and who is not lumal. It is possible, though rare, that a kaxlan can become a lumal. That can happen as long as the person lives on the same land and becomes integrated as part of the community, as well as in their customs and community labor. Today, however, we are deemed “Indigenous” by means of colonial invention, state policy, anthropological pretense, and a form of recognition that alludes to the “subject of law” legitimized by governments. “Indigenous” is a homogenizing word that agglomerates the vast diversity of peoples, cultures, and individuals; it is a designation used widely and freely, without having inquired as to how we want to be recognized, how we want to be named.

But what I am—what my people are—cannot be summed up in a linguistic expression or framed by a concept. It cannot be summarized in 500 years of struggle, because what I am referring to has its origins in times long ago, when words did not persecute in the way they do now. It’s the 21st century, and the same connotations of “Indigenous” continue to prevail. Folklore, exclusion, denigration, and racism are commonplace meanings expressed on a daily basis.

What are the foundations of existence? What are their limits? Skin color, facial features, body type, a history made inferior: These are what difference is founded upon.

3 Tacit Invasions

To invade is the action of forcibly entering a place in order to occupy it. It is to dispossess everything that is in a territory, in a worldview, and in a wisdom in order to instill a system alien to those cultures, communities, and peoples. But invasion also occurs through consent, through naturalized practices, mechanisms of internal colonialism that reproduce colonial hegemony by means of people who claim responsibility for the “Indigenous,” taking on the role of spokespersons. Such people recognize themselves as Indigenous to obtain the patronage of others. Meaning lies not in their words but in what their words name and mobilize. There’s nothing wrong with self-identifying when you have the consciousness to challenge and give new meaning to the word “Indigenous”—when you know its history. However, there are people who discursively claim Indigeneity, even as their actions promote a greater lie.

There are those who say they are representatives of their peoples, their spokespersons, defenders of the younger generations, children of their ancestors, the strength of their lineage, the embodiment of community. They proclaim these things in the academy, in activist circles, in government, in press releases, literature, photography, in all forms: wherever there is a spotlight or a politician willing to remunerate the performance, the protagonist.

When this happens, being Indigenous becomes conceit. But what is exposed, with each act, is a quest for self-betterment that is individualistic but expressed as collective. This is the result of capitalism. Accumulation comes at a cost: deception. This form of cultural neo-extractivism is exerted as a tacit invasion, and yet it’s applauded because “the Indigenous are emancipated, empowered,” people say. That person has integrated himself into the nation, into its political life.

By contrast, there are entire towns that struggle constantly to protect their rivers, groundwater, and forests. They defend the territory where they live, where they coexist alongside and establish affective relationships with their immediate environment. [4] Affective relationships are understood in terms of the ability to express and experience emotional attachments with other people, flora, fauna, and soul entities. Among Tseltal peoples, all lifeforms are considered capable of expressing what they feel by virtue of having a heart. They protect the sacred sites that cement their cultural origins, places that house the remains and memories of those who have left. They re-create and revitalize their language so that it is not silenced. They fight against extractivism, against policies that foster dispossession. They are the Indigenous peoples deemed not to matter, who instead of becoming emancipated, rebel against development and progress. Those who do not want to rise out of poverty. Those who find themselves on the bottommost rung of a nation that has forgotten them.

A single word, at once esteemed and rejected. It is not “Indigenous” that is accepted but rather who embodies it and how they incorporate it. The word’s meaning lies in the performance of those who enunciate it, on behalf of themselves and others, and in those who reject the designation and question its prescriptive qualities. In these acts, approval or condemnation for “Indigeneity” is revealed.

To be or not to be? I am Tseltal and, in saying this, I recognize my history, and I feel that which I want to be. 

4 Being in These Times

Original peoples, languages, and cultures
persist despite the ravages of history.
Their life-world meanings
transcend the confines of time.
There will be future scenarios
in which not a single original language
survives the planet’s decline.
There may be apocalyptic predictions
that forecast the extinction of original peoples.
But behind all bleak assertions,
a vast root is found in our center,
in the only essence no one can take away from us: the heart.

There, the wisdom—of the rain,
of sowing cycles,
of music in the mountains,
and of dream voyages—is born
and resurfaces once more.

We exist in this time and in all possible times
because the ancient traces
divulge our reasons in the present:
existing for tomorrow.

5 Belonging to Myself

There’s a litany hidden in my voice
emitting diluted sounds.
It appears as mist
barely visible,
which vanishes suddenly, like an echo
resounding up to the final syllable
of a scream prolonged in time.

A litany, my hidden voice
that, in the end, breaks uncorrected
to tell history unspoken.
A litany that bares my father’s open hands,
my mother’s grin,
liberating the phonemes, my vocal cords.
A litany that, in the end, is pronounced in Tseltal.

A photograph shows four children and an adult looking at the camera in a grassy village setting with two men wearing straw hats, a horse with bags tied to its back, and a few wooden building in the background.

The author stands with members of his community.

Courtesy of Delmar Ulises Méndez-Gómez

A’yel jtaleltik (Tseltal) - Listen

A’yel jtaleltik

1 Jo’on

Maba indigenaon,

jo’on tseltalon.

Jo’on te sbats’il kop jlumal.

K’alal ya kal mach’on, ya ka’y.

Jo’on te bats’il k’op te ya jk’opon.

K’alal ya kal mach’on, ya xkuxinon.

K’alal ya xk’opojon ta bats’il k’op,

ya xchijkanjik te kuts kalal.

K’alal ya kal te tseltalon,

Ya jkich’ ta muk’ te jtalele.

Te pajal taleltik,

te talel kuxineltik,

ja’ te ma’yuk bin ora ch’aybil.


Najkana te ak’ope sok ta X.
Banti talemat

¿Indigena’at? Jich____         Ju’uk____       Yan: ants winikon.

2 Jo’on-maba jo’on indígena

Tukel ya jojk’otik: mach’aon. Kil tukeltik te sit kelawtik. Sujtesel ta o’tanil. Na’beyel te jbak’etaltike, te sts’umbal jtaleltik, te banti lijkemotik ta namej k’inal ja’to ta orainto. Ya jna’beybatik ta sp’ijilal te jlumaltik, te lum k’inal ta banti ya set jbajtik te ixim te ya jts’untik. Ya kaltik te stalel te balumilal-kuxinel sok te jbats’il k’optike. Ya ka’ytik stojol te binti ya schol k’aytik te me’tike, te sp’ijilal k’op yu’un te tatike. Ja’ ya yalbotik te ya xk’opojotik ta bats’il k’op, maba ch’opol k’op. Ya jna’tik stojol. Ja’nax te binti lek na’otike ya yich’ tup’el sok makel stalel. Ja’ yu’un te jich ya yich’ pasel ta namej k’inal yu’un stalel te kaxlanetik te ya spoj, ya stsak lok’el, ya ach’ubtes jbak’etaltik, ya yak’ snop te kaxlan k’ope sok ya smilotik. Ya yilotik, k’alal jich ya yich’ pasel, ja’nax ya yalbotik:

¡Indigena’at! ¡Intsioat! ¡Be’elatik! ¡ma’yuk a tak’in!

K’opetik te ya kich’tik alel yu’un te jich ya yich’ nopel jtaleltik yu’un te kaxlan ants winiketik te ya yich’ik ta muk’ te p’ajele sok sk’opik, sok te binti spasik sok te binti ya sch’unik. A’yejetik te ya schol bit’il ya kuxintik, te p’ajel te bak’etal sok ko’tantik.

Te jname kuts kalal: jmam, jmechun, jtat, jme’, maba ya yalik te indigenaik, ja’ ya sna’ik stukelik te ay sch’ulelik, ay yo’tanik, ay slabik, ay sbak’etalik sok sp’ijilal. Ma’yuk jun k’op te ya yal te mach’aotik sok te yan ants winiketik.

¿Indígena? Ja’ jun k’op te ma yich’ alel ta tseltal sok ta yantik bats’il k’opetik ta balumilal. Jlumal bajtik, jich ta alel, te pajal lijkemotiktal ta lum. Mak, ya’tik jich ya kich’tik alel, ja’ jich la yal te kaxlanetik, te muk’ul ajwaliletik, te mach’a ya snop taleltik ta antropología, sok te jich’ ya kich’tik ta muk’ te ans winiketik te ya yak smantal te tuneletik. Ja’ jun k’op te ya stsob spisik te talel kuxlejaletik sok ants winiketik; ja’ jun k’op te pisil ora ya yich’ alel, ja’nax te kich’tik jojk’otel bin ut’il ya k’antik te ya yalbotik, te bit’il ta jk’anjo’tik ich’el ta muk.

Mak te mach’aon, te binti ja’ te jlumal, ma x-och ta jun k’op, ma stak’ ta alel ta junax k’op. Ma’uknax te 500 ja’wil te spasel tulan, talento ta namej k’inal, k’alal banti ma’yuk k’opetik te ya sp’ajotik jich bit’il ya’tik into. Ja’wil XXI, te binti te indigeane yato yich’ alel. K’opetik te ya scholik te ja’nax ya jmulantik te k’ine, te kich’tik makel, te ya kich’tik p’ajel sok te uts’inel, k’opetik te ya yich’ alel ta jujun k’alil.

¿Bistuk xkal te ya yich’ alel? ¿bi ora ya xlaj a? te kubtik, te jsik kelawtik, te jbak’etaltik, te maba yich’ ta muk’ jtaleltik, ja’ jich ya kich’tik makel.

3 Pojel talelal

Te pojele jun talelal banti ay mach’a sok sujel ya x-och ta smakel jun awilal. Ja’ spojel spisil te bitik ay ta jun lumal, ta jun nopojibal, ta jun p’ijilal banti sok yantik nopojibal yich’ jelel te lumaletik, te komonaletik sok te ants winiketik. Jichnix ek ya xk’ax k’alal ya yich’ ch’unel, banti maba chopol ilbil, melel ay ta yutil bak’etalil: ja’ te smeintesel sba ta stojol te mach’a ya sbiilte sbaik bit’il “indigenatik”, k’alal yalik te ja’ik te mach’a jk’ases k’op yu’un te lumaletike. Jich’ ya sch’un sbaik melel jich ya staik koltael a.  Melel te maba ay ta k’op te swentaile, ja’ ay ta banti ya yich’ alel mak ta bin ut’il ya stuntesike. Sbiiltesel jbatik maba chopol k’alal k’oem ta ko’tantik te stulanil sok te swentail te k’ope, k’alal na’bil te ya’yejul kuxinele. Aynix ants winiketik te jichnax ya yalik te jichike, ja’nax te ta stalelik ya xlolewanik.

Ay mach’atik ya yalik te ja’ik te mach’a jolol ta slumalik, ja’ik te mach’a xk’opojik ta sbiil slumalik, ja’ik te mach’a skoltay te ants winiketik, ja’ik te mach’a alnich’an yu’unik te namey me’tatiletike, ja’ik te mach’a ya yak’bey stulanil te yuts’ yalalik, ja’ik te banti tojk’ te sk’oplal te komone. Ya yalik ta snail nopjun, ta jkoltael, ta congreso, ya sts’ibuyik ta junaletik, ta nichimal k’op, ta lok’ombailetik, ta spisil banti stak’ pasel, banti stak’ ak’el ilel mak ta stojol política banti ayuk majt’anil ta stojol te binti pasbil, te toybajile.

Yalel te indigenaptike ya yak’ toyojibal. Te binti xlok’ ta jujun talelal ja’ te ja’nax lebil te koltael ta tulutul, manchuk albil te komone, ja’ te binti lok’em ta stojol te tael k’ulejal banti ja’ lebil te yakuk yich’ tael bayel tak’in sok lolayel. Ja’ spasemal te pojel talel kuxinel ta jujun ts’umbal te maba albil ja’nax pasbil, banti binax yo’tanik k’alal ta yich’ pasel, melel “te bats’il ants winik ya skol sba, ya stulante sba”. Ochix ta muk’ul lumal, ta skuxinel ta política.

Ta yan, ay lumaletik te ya spasik tulan ta skoltael te ja’etik, te lok’ibal ja’etik sok te witstikil yu’unike. Ya skoltayik te lum k’inal banti ya xkuxinik, banti ya yich’ sbaik ta muk’ sok banti ya xk’uxta sbaik te ants winiketik soknix ek te jme’tik balumilal. Ya skanantayik te ch’ul awilal yu’unik banti albil te jajch te stalel kuxlejale, banti ay sbak’etal sok snopojibal yu’unik te mach’a chamikixe. Ya scha’pasik sok ya scha’kuxinik te sk’opike, jich maba yich’ ch’abel a. Ya spasik tulan ta skomel te pojele, ta skontrail te a’teletik te ya skoltayik te pojel. Ja’ik te lumaletik te albil te indigenaetik te mach’a maba ay jk’oplaltik yilel, te maba ja’ ay ta yo’tanik kolel sbaik, ja’ ya spasik tulan ta skomel te lekubtesel sok beentesel te kuxinel. Mach’a maba sk’anik xlok’ik ta meba’il. Te mach’a ayik ta slajibal tejk’abal lumal mach’a ch’ayemotik ta yo’tan.

Junax k’op, te jich bit’il ich’bil ta muk’ jich maba ch’umbil ek. Maba ja’ te “indígena” te binti ch’unbil, ja’ te bin ut’il ya yich’ ch’ikel sok a’yel ta jujun bajk’etal. Te swentail te k’ope ay ta sts’unbal stalel te mach’a ya stuntes ta k’op ta stojol sok ta stojol te yantike. Ay ta mach’a maba ay ta yo’tan te k’ope banti ya sjok’oy te swentail yu’un te jich ya yich’ alele. Le ya stak’ ilel tame ch’unbil mak maba ich’bil ta muk’e.

¿Ja’ balon mak ju’uk? Jo’on tseltalon k’alal ya kal ya kich’ ta muk’ te sk’oplal jkuxinel, sok ya ka’y ta ko’tan ta mach’a ya jk’atp’o jbaj.

4 Mach’aon ta orainto

Te sts’umbal sok te bats’il k’op yu’unik te lumaletike
kuxulikto manchuk tulan staojik p’ajel.
Te talel kuxlejal-balumilal
Ya schiknaj ta sbajtel k’inal.
te kuxinel te mato k’axeme ya stak’ jolintayel
banti albil te ya xtup’ik te bats’il k’opetik
k’alal ya scham te jme’tik kaxialtik.
Aynix ya yich’ na’el te chopol nopojibal
banti yich’ alel te ya xlaj spisil te bats’il lumaletike.
Manchuk albil te ya staotik te wokolile
ay binti tulan ta yutil jbak’etaltik,
te ja’ te binti ma’yuk mach’a stak’ spojbotike: ja’ te o’tanil.
Tey ya schijna sok xme’in
te sk’oplal te ja’ale,
te yorail awal,
te k’ayoj ta witsetik
sok te sbeomal te ch’ulele,
ya’tik sok ta patil ya xkuxinotik,
melel te sk’olal talel ts’umbal ta namej
ya yak’ na’tik swentail te bistuk kuxinemotike:
kuxinel ta sbajtel k’inal.

5 junajel jba

Ay binti mukul ta jk’op te k’unk’un ya schiknaj
ya xlok’ ta p’alp’al k’op,
ya schiknajte sba ta tokal yilel
tebnax ya stak’ ta ilel
ya xtup’ k’alal ya sjat sba te k’ope,
te ya yich’ beel te slajibal awunel
te yato yich’ a’yel.
Ay binti mukul ta jk’op te k’unk’un ya schiknaj
te stukel ya sjat sba
ta slok’esel ya’yejul te binti maba yich’oj cholel
banti ya yak’ na’el te sk’unul sk’ab te jtate,
te sbujs’ stse’el te jme’e,
banti ya skol sba te jk’ope, ta yak’ul jnuk’,
te ya jkal k’alal ya xk’opojon ta bats’il k’op tseltal.

Delmar Ulises Méndez-Gómez is an essayist, documentary filmmaker, and Tseltal academic from Chiapas, México. He is a doctoral student in anthropological sciences at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana Unidad Iztapalapa. His field of study is affective anthropology, Native peoples, and communication. Méndez-Gómez is the author of the bilingual book of essays El giro de la Pelota. Te sututet ixtabil. He is conducting a study on the semantics of emotions and sexuality in young Tseltals in Chiapas. Follow him on Twitter @S0fes and Instagram @Delmar_penka.

Read this article in:  Español (Spanish)

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